[Sticky] GND-Tech Official Keyboard Guide  

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Jester
(@jester)
Member Moderator
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Good morning and welcome to the official GND-Tech keyboard guide. Here you'll find some fundamental information about keyboards, as well as a list of recommended keyboards.

We're primarily going to focus on mechanical keyboards, the best/most versatile/most reliable keyboards. Normal keyboards simply use rubber dome technology, which is also used on cheap TV remotes and the like. They're the cheapest, least reliable technology for keyboards that wear out quickly over time and have a very mushy feel. Even most "high end" keyboards and most "gaming" keyboards use cheap rubber dome technology (Logitech G19, G15, and others like it included). All non-mechanical keyboards are really the same thing, except with different aesthetics. Yes, this means that the Logitech G19 which debuted for $200 was really a $30 keyboard except with a wrist-rest, an LCD screen attached, and cheap LED functions.

Mechanical keyboards on the other hand feature an actual mechanical switch underneath each key (except for cheap semi-mechanical ones that also have some rubber dome keys, like older Corsair models). The benefit of this? Let's take a look.

  • Much better durability, the switches don't wear out like rubber domes and last far longer.
  • There's also a wide variety of mechanical switches, all with different feel and sensitivity, so you can get a keyboard suited just for you.
  • They don't have the same awful mushy feel as rubber dome keyboards.
  • Mechanical switches actually activate closer to the half-way point rather than at the bottom of the keypress, leading to potentially faster typing (as seen in some of our keyboard reviews).
  • Customization. In addition to the different feeling mechanical switches, on mechanical keyboards you can even switch out the keycaps to new ones of different shape, color, texture, build, with different fonts, etc. Or you can build your own; you can order a keyboard case in whatever color/material you want, PCB, and deck it out with whatever switches, keycaps, LED color, and features you want. Stores like Gon's Keyboard Works can do the hard work for you.
  • The best technology is exclusive to mechanical keyboards. This includes hardware level macro coding and customization, letting you change the function and even disable keys. The best LED technology is also exclusive to mechanical keyboards; non-mechanical ones just have cheap LEDs positioned inside the keyboard, but most mechanical keyboards put an LED under each and every switch. Also, just look at what my MK Disco lets me do.

Once you type on a mechanical keyboard, you'll never go back.

Moving on, let's look at some common keyboard terminology to clear up some confusion.

  • Key Rollover (#KRO or NKRO): This refers to the amount of keys that can be pressed/registered at once. A 6KRO keyboard for example (which was most USB mechanical keyboards a few years ago) will let you press any six keys plus four modifier keys (like CTRL, ALT, SHIFT) at the same time. Then there's NKRO, or N-Key Rollover, which means you can press any amount of keys at once and they'll all be registered. True NKRO is found on many PS/2 interface keyboards. USB is limited to simulated NKRO, which is practically the same for most people (may depend on your OS). You can test your key rollover here.
  • Polling Rate: Response time for USB keyboards. Pretty much all mechanical keyboards these days are fast enough (1000 Hz) so it's not an issue. If you're using PS/2, then there is no polling and you instead get instantaneous response.
  • Stabilizers: For mechanical keyboards that use Cherry MX switches (which is 99% of them), you'll find two different types of stabilizers that are used on larger keys like spacebar, shift, and enter: Cherry stabilizers and Costar stabilizers. The former is much easier to work with since it allows for easier keycap removal/installation, and they don't need to be lubricated like Costar stabilizers. However, Cherry stabilizers may lead to a more wobbly key, and sometimes have a more dampened feel (often compared to the feeling of Cherry switches with o-rings, which are used for dampening/noise reduction). Costar stabilizers on the other hand should be more stable/less wobbly, and feel like a non-dampened natural Cherry MX switch. The downsides to Costar stabilizers are the need for lubrication, and they're harder to work with. It's not hard to break a Costar stabilizer due to mistakes made during installation/removal. The downsides to Costar stabilizers are why I personally prefer Cherry, but it boils down to personal preference.
  • Tenkeyless: A compact form factor keyboard. Basically, take your normal keyboard and chop off the numberpad portion, and you have a tenkeyless.
  • ISO/ANSI: The latter is the standard keyboard layout in the US. The former is used in Europe. The main difference is that ISO has the big J-shaped enter key, in place of the backslash key.

Below is a description of the interfaces used on keyboards.

  • USB: Most common, and makes for easy hot-swapping of parts. The only noticeable downside is that not all USB keyboards can do simulated NKRO.
  • PS/2: Fully interrupt-based. Key strokes basically force the CPU to register them immediately, so PS/2 keyboards can't be delayed by other devices on the USB bus. PS/2 keyboards are usually capable of true NKRO too. The downside is that PS/2 devices usually aren't hot swappable and the PC needs to be shut down during installation.

Let's move on to the common types of mechanical switches. You'll almost always be dealing with Cherry MX switches, so for the sake of practicality we'll only go over those. Other types of mechanical switches include White Alps, Black Alps, and Topre, but these are extremely rare. So we'll go over common Cherry MX switches, also using borrowed images that show how they function.

Tactile Switches: These have a noticeable bump that occurs roughly half-way down, at or near the actuation point of the key. This is to let you know that the key has activated, and it's meant to prevent you from bottoming out, leading to reduced fatigue and faster typing. These are the switches that really offer improved typing speeds, though they typically aren't preferred for gaming (boils down to personal preference). Rubber dome keyboards can be related to tactile switches more, though don't let that fool you, these feel totally different. Below is a list of common tactile switches.

  • Cherry MX Brown - 45g Activation Force (Force Diagram)
    T1N.gif
    To be honest, I don't know if these should be listed here or not. Technically they're tactile, but the tactile bump is extremely light. I'm one of many who claims that the tactile bump is so light that it's not useful, and doesn't even have to be there. I'd rather see these replaced in the mainstream market by the next switch listed below.

  • Cherry MX Clear - 55g Activiation Force
    AXdnR.gif
    This is like a heavier brown switch; stiffer due to the higher activation force, with a much more noticeable tactile bump. As with browns, these have a silent bump and no clicking mechanism. These should really replace Browns in the mainstream market. Compared to blues, they're heavier and a bit more tactile, and the tactile bump seems to be higher up.

  • Cherry MX Blue - 50g Activation Force (Force Diagram)
    Uc3Ms.gif
    Noticeable tactile feel with a moderate activation force of 50g. The tactile bump is accompanied by an audible click, really letting you know that the key was activated. Great for typing, though some may complain about the clicky noise.

  • Cherry MX Green - 80g Activation Force
    VGrM7.gif
    A heavier version of MX Blues. It wasn't very common before, but Cooler Master and perhaps other companies are helping to bring them into the mainstream market.

  • Cherry MX White - 65g Activation Force: So rare that I couldn't even find a gif. In between Blues and Browns regarding stiffness, but it's unique in having a less audible click sound.
  • Cherry MX Grey - 80g Activation Force: Even more rare than MX Whites. Basically a heavier MX Clear switch. Very heavy, very tactile.
  • Buckling Spring - 65g-70g Activation Force
    EzVw.gif
    Okay, this will be the only mechanical switch directly covered that's not made by Cherry. Why? Well, a highly recommended and affordable keyboard lineup uses them. This is the classic switch seen on classic IBM keyboards and newer keyboards based on them. It's a heavy, clickly, loud mechanical switch. Just what I love for typing.

Linear Switches: No tactile bump/click, the key just goes straight down with no interrupting force. This also disguises the actuation point, which you'll never feel on a linear switch due to the lack of a tactile bump. Many people, including me, prefer linear switches for gaming, but it's all personal preference.

  • Cherry MX Black - 60g Activation Force (Force Diagram)
    zZb5P.gif
    Heavier linear switch. One of the two common types of linear switches.

  • Cherry MX Red - 45g Activation Force (Force Diagram)
    eqYfE.gif
    Basically a lighter version of MX Blacks. One of the lightest mechanical switches out there, next to MX Browns which are tactile unlike Reds.

  • Cherry MX Linear Grey - 105g Activation Force: Another rare one with no gif image I could find. Basically a much heavier black switch, supposedly used as a spacebar on some MX Black keyboards.

If you want to try out these switches for yourself, order something like these:

http://www.cmstore-usa.com/mechanical-key-switch-demo-board/

http://www.qwerkeys.co.uk/shop/switch-testers/qwer8-v2-mx-switch-testing-kit/

http://www.maxkeyboard.com/max-keyboard-keycap-cherry-mx-switch-o-ring-pro-sampler-tester-kit.html

The Max Keyboard Pro is the best sampler to date.

Also keep in mind that Koreans measure spring force differently; they measure bottom out force, while Cherry and all of the above actuation forces measure activation force.

Before moving onto keyboard recommendations, let's quickly go over some basic information about keycaps. You'll find two different materials for them: ABS plastic and PBT. The former is typical plastic used on most every day objects: it's common, cheap, and lightweight, but they wear down and are much less reliable. PBT is far more reliable and heat-resistant, but harder to make and therefore more expensive. You may also find POM keycaps: I currently use a Vortex double shot set which uses a POM outer layer, and translucent PBT inner layer. POM is sort of a middle ground between ABS and PBT: more durable and expensive than the former, but less durable and expensive than the latter.

Related to the material is the printing method, or how they print the letters on them.

  • Pad Printing: This is what you find on cheap, typical keyboards. They're essentially stickers; you can feel them over the surface of the keycap and they peel off.
  • Laser Etching: Not very common. Lasers are used to mark the surface of the keycap. Doesn't wear out easily, though you can feel the lettering slightly.
  • Laser Engraving: This is used in place of the previous method, in most cases. The laser instead cuts grooves into the plastic, which is why you can feel the lettering but it doesn't wear down. This is common on high end keyboards.
  • Double Shot Injection Molding: This is the most preferred method by keyboard enthusiasts. These are two piece keycaps, where the keycap surface has the letter cut out of it, and a second piece of plastic fills in that letter spot. It is by far the most reliable due to the two-piece design, it reinforces the structures of the keycap, the edges are perfect, you can't feel the lettering, but they're pricey and are limited to two colors.
  • Dye Sublimation: The keycaps are dyed, like the name suggests. More reliable than laser etched/engraved and pad printing, and you can't feel the lettering. They can have many different colors, but all colors must be darker than the keycap itself. Dye sublimation results in much more vivid colors, so if you want colored lettering then dye sublimation is the way to go unless the keycap color is darker than the lettering color you want. They're rare.

There are also different shapes for keycaps. Typical ones are cylindrical, while typewriter-esque kinds are spherical. Flat keycaps are what you find on laptops. You have to go out of your way to come across spherical and flat keycaps for mechanical keyboards.

Let's look at recommended keyboards now, first by manufacturer then by price range. Remember, if you can't afford mechanical keyboards then it doesn't matter what you get since rubber dome keyboards are all essentially the same things, minus aesthetics and some gimmicky features.

Trusted Brands

  • Code Keyboard
  • Cooler Master (QuickFire Rapid, QuickFire Stealth series, QuickFire XT, Trigger-Z/Trigger)
  • CtrlAlt (custom keyboards)
  • Duck
  • Ducky
  • Filco
  • Gon's Keyboard Works (custom Korean keyboards)
  • KMAC (custom Korean keyboards)
  • KUL (Keyed Up Labs)
  • Leopold
  • Unicomp (especially the Ultra Classic) - Pretty much the only guys left with Buckling Spring keyboards
  • WASD

The ones in gold are the absolute best keyboard manufacturers. Now let's look at recommended keyboards by price range.

Under $70

  • Monoprice mechanical keyboards
  • Rosewill mechanical keyboards
  • Any mechanical keyboard under $70 is significantly better than anything non mechanical, so if this is all your budget permits you can't really go wrong with any mechanical.

Under $100

  • Cooler Master Storm QuickFire Rapid
  • Cooler Master Storm QuickFire Stealth
  • Cooler Master Storm QuickFire XT
  • Cooler Master Storm QuickFire XT Stealth
  • Ducky Zero (full size or tenkeyless)
  • Unicomp Ultra Classic

$100-139

  • Cooler Master Storm Trigger and Trigger-Z - These are the only really good "gaming" keyboards, which refers to gaudy keyboards with features like LED backlighting, wrist-rest, and macro functions.
  • Cooler Master QuickFire Rapid-I - Tenkeyless
  • Cooler Master QuickFire Rapid-SI - Tenkeyless
  • CtrlAlt JD40
  • Ducky G2 Pro
  • Ducky Mini - 60%, great quality and unbelievable value.
  • KUL ES-87 - Tenkeyless, amazing quality and value.
  • Leopold FC660M - PBT keycaps by default, excellent value.
  • Leopold FC750R - Tenkeyless, PBT keycaps by default. Excellent value.
  • Leopold FC900R - Fullsize, PBT keycaps by default, excellent value.
  • MK Disco - TKL, laser etched ABS keycaps, RGB backlit, KBT switches. It's basically a TKL Ducky Shine 5 for an excellent price, but no double shot keycaps.

$140-200

  • Cherry MX 6.0 - Fullsize with wrist-rest, backlit, uses analog mechanical switches (but still only binary, e.g. pressed or not pressed).
  • CODE Keyboard - Tenkeyless and fullsize, available in the rare MX Clear and Green switches. WASD sells them too.
  • Cooler Master QuickFire XTi - Fullsize
  • Ducky Shine 5 - Fullsize RGB, double shot ABS keycaps.
  • Ducky Shine 6 - Fullsize RGB, double shot ABS keycaps.
  • Ducky Legend - Fullsize, amazing value
  • Filco Majestouch 2 - Tenkeyless and fullsize
  • Filco Majestouch 2 Ninja - Tenkeyless and fullsize, same as the Majestouch 2 but with different keycaps.
  • Varmilo VA87M - Tenkeyless
  • WASD V2 - Tenkeyless and fullsize. Good if you want a more custom build.
  • Wooting One (Basic) - Tenkeyless "analog" mechanical keyboard. THE BEST GAMING KEYBOARD TODAY.

Over $200

As a reminder, if you want to try out these switches for yourself, order something like this:

http://www.maxkeyboard.com/max-keyboard-keycap-cherry-mx-switch-o-ring-pro-sampler-tester-kit.html

You can order some custom keycaps from these stores:

http://www.gmk-electronic-design.de/en/products.html

http://geekkeys.com/

http://pimpmykeyboard.com/keysets/

http://www.shapeways.com/shops/gizmobazaar

ReplyQuote
Posted : 07/06/2014 7:48 pm
strudinox
(@strudinox)
BOT Admin

Awesome guide!

I've got 4 mechanical keyboards at home now, and one at my work computer. Once you go mechanical, you don't go back. I think some people think that the different switch type differences are subtle but they are definitely not. My personal favorite are the brown switches. They aren't loud like the blues but still provide some decent tactile feedback making it a good mix for gaming/writing.

The only two I have experience with on that list are the Original CM Storm Trigger, and Quickfire XT. Both awesome keybaords, but I've never liked a keyboard more than the Trigger. I'd love to try the new one out. Hrmmmm.....

ReplyQuote
Posted : 08/06/2014 1:24 pm
Jester
(@jester)
Member Moderator

You should get that CM Storm keyboard tester I linked to, so you can try other switches like Greys. It's out of stock right now though.

By the way, I don't recall there being significant changes with the Trigger-Z. I think it's mostly new LED lighting functions and more switch options like MX Greens. The only noticeable upgrade to the Trigger would be a custom one like KMAC or Gon's, but those prices are scary.

ReplyQuote
Posted : 08/06/2014 2:11 pm
Jester
(@jester)
Member Moderator

Got my Max keyboard pro sampler.

ZKENy.jpg

ncfdj.jpg

Prior to getting this, I had experience with Reds, Browns, Blues, and Buckling Springs. My Ducky Shine 2 uses MX Reds, while my Adesso AKP-220B uses MX Blues. I always considered MX Browns to be useless since they're barely tactile, and I also hate o-rings especially on tactile switches.

But I no longer prefer Reds for gaming and Blues for typing. Now, I prefer Blacks for gaming (which are just heavier Reds) and Greens and Whites for typing (Greens are heavier blues, Whites are quieter Greens). Clears are as good as I expected them to be, they are what Browns should be. Greys are cool, very heavy. Whites are the closest to Buckling Spring.

It's impossible for me to not constantly bottom out with MX Browns. It takes a little bit of practice for me to not bottom out with Blues, while it's very easy to type without bottoming out on Clears, Whites, Greens, and Greys.

ReplyQuote
Posted : 07/08/2014 4:55 pm
strudinox
(@strudinox)
BOT Admin

LOL that's funny because of all the switch types I like browns the most. I like the slight tactile feel and the pressure is just perfect for me. Personally I hate blues more than any other. They are loud, and waaay to sensitive. Because of this, it's way to easy to press two keys at once.

Nice sampler though. 😀

I've never tried whites or greens though. Someday I'll have to "stumble" upon a keyboard using them so I can get a feel for them.

ReplyQuote
Posted : 07/08/2014 9:39 pm
Jester
(@jester)
Member Moderator

Good luck finding a keyboard with MX Whites. Browns are actually more sensitive than Blues: the former has an actuation force of 45g while the latter is 50g. It's so hard for me to not bottom out on Browns, thus making the tactile feel useless to me. You should try Clears, they're basically heavier and much more tactile Browns (55g vs 45g). Greens are super loud like Blues, Whites are still loud.

ReplyQuote
Posted : 07/08/2014 11:07 pm
strudinox
(@strudinox)
BOT Admin

That can't be right... I've got both, a brown and a blue switch keyboard sitting right in front of me, and the browns are by far more forceful than the blues. Unless maybe it's the tactile difference throwing me off. =

ReplyQuote
Posted : 08/08/2014 12:04 am
Jester
(@jester)
Member Moderator

I think it's the click sound throwing you off. When tapping Browns you don't hear much, while tapping Blues hard enough will alert the neighbors. When you're about to hit an MX Blue key I assume you're anticipating it and getting ready to cover your ears, hence it seeming easier to activate. In terms of stiffness it's a really negligible difference, at only 5g.

Browns are 5g lighter and also less tactile. Blues are 5g heavier and a tiny bit more tactile. I also have both right in front of me: a Brown switch on the tester next to a Blue one, as well as a 22-key pad with MX Blues. I no longer have an MX Brown keyboard though, the last one I had was the QuickFire Pro.

So here are my favorite switches for typing:

MX Green = MX White > MX Clear > Buckling Spring > MX Blue > MX Grey > Everything else by a long shot

For gaming I heavily prefer linear switches, and I now prefer the 60g MX Blacks to the 45g MX Reds (no other difference beside stiffness/spring).

ReplyQuote
Posted : 08/08/2014 12:12 am
iiNNeX
(@iiNNeX)
GODLIKE

I tried black and I prefer the Reds over Blacks for gaming. It is a personal choice though seeing as the only difference is the key becomes more sensitive the more it weighs. Good write-up though!

Edit:

Heeeey why is my awesome Corsair K70 not on the list ? :O It's reasonably priced and performs incredibly well. On par with CoolerMaster's lineup for sure.

ReplyQuote
Posted : 08/08/2014 5:09 am
strudinox
(@strudinox)
BOT Admin

Blacks are nice for gaming, but if you ever find yourself needing to type a six page paper (or review), you're going to have a bad time due to the early onset of arthritis.

ReplyQuote
Posted : 08/08/2014 11:59 am
Jester
(@jester)
Member Moderator

@eXile 120173 wrote:

I tried black and I prefer the Reds over Blacks for gaming. It is a personal choice though seeing as the only difference is the key becomes more sensitive the more it weighs. Good write-up though!

Edit:

Heeeey why is my awesome Corsair K70 not on the list ? :O It's reasonably priced and performs incredibly well. On par with CoolerMaster's lineup for sure.

You can get better keyboards for the price of the K70, which is why it's not in the recommended list.

ReplyQuote
Posted : 08/08/2014 12:26 pm
iiNNeX
(@iiNNeX)
GODLIKE

In the UK a good mechanical keyboard does not cost below £100. So I somehow doubt that but okay.

ReplyQuote
Posted : 11/08/2014 7:27 pm
Jester
(@jester)
Member Moderator

You're probably right about that, we all know how UK prices are. K70 also has rather poor QC with too many reports of LEDs dying early.

ReplyQuote
Posted : 11/08/2014 7:33 pm
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